Part III: Hollywood Lives, The Sisters final installment
A view of the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn. Photo: JH.
Although they were right up there with the Mayers and the Selznicks socially and materially, Irene’s success did not escape Edie’s eyes. Her husband’s seeming lack of talent, however, did not daunt or humiliate. In fact, their devotion to each other impresssed everyone — they called each other “Snoogie,” a name which so amused their friend Ernst Lubitsch that he used it for character in two of his comedies.

Furthermore Billy Goetz was far more popular in the community then either David Selznick or L.B. Mayer, and was very well liked by both men and women. However, from the vantage point of that time – the late 1930s, early 1940s, no one in Hollywood could have imagined that Edie would one day rise to eclipse both sister and father, or that Bill would eclipse both brother- and father-in-law in terms of business success, wealth and power.

LB and Lorena Mayer
Irene had the successful mogul husband, two sons (Edie and Bill had two daughters), the bigger house, the closer famous friends (Katharine Hepburn, Dorothy Paley) and the connections to New York society.

No one could have been more sensitive to this than Billy Goetz, never considered a contender but just a nice guy who married the boss’ daughter. In fact, Irene liked to rub it in, repeating the story that “Dad had found Billy for Edie” when no one else wanted her.

LB Mayer was also sensitive to the matter. Still the doting father, he visited his eldest nearly everyday on his way to or from the studio. He boasted that no matter the time of day, his Edi-la was always picture perfect, beautifully groomed, dressed, perfumed, manicured and lacquered nails, so feminine, so lovely. She’d greet her father with a kiss and like a delighted child, sit on the old man’s lap, arms around his neck, as he beamed in a haze of perfumed admiration for his darling child. And so it followed that when she was unhappy, so was he.

In the mid-1930s he financed a joint venture with the Schenck brothers (Nick and Joe) to back Darryl Zanuck, then head of production at Warners, in his own company, 20th Century Productions. The only hitch: Billy Goetz had to be made a full partner. He also gave half his stock in the new company to his daughters and sons-in-law.

Irene was furious about the boost Billy was getting from her father. She and David refused the stock out of noble principle. They didn’t need Dad, like some people they knew. So LB gave their share to Edie and Bill, which only infuriated Irene more. The new company was successful and when it was merged into the failing Fox pictures (to become 20th Century-Fox), everyone got rich.

So, to reflect all that, in the year of Gone With the Wind, Billy gave Edie the Renoir and built her a big new house at the beach (so they had two residences), bigger even than their neighbors the Zanucks (whom Edie actively loathed, probably out of jealousy).

Underlying all of this rise to prominence for the Mayer sisters in their father’s kingdom was the death of their parents’ marriage. His girls’ leaving home to marry took something from his relationship with Margaret that left him bereft and lonely. And lusting. Margaret, besides never having groomed herself for the life her daughters took to with so much facility was now also menopausal. Now Dad, the man who had foisted the white picket fence, apple pie, Mom, the MGM musical and Andy Hardy on the American psyche, was now the philanderer, albeit somewhat bombastic and bumbling, chasing after the very shiksas he had idealized on the screen.

When Margaret Mayer realized her man was gone for good, she was shattered. She had a nervous breakdown, and although her daughters never had wanted to take sides in their parents’ breakup, they had to when it came to their social life. After all, their father was the King of Hollywood. The girls did not handle it well. Edie was torn and confused. When Margaret was hospitalized, Edie sent meals prepared by her chef but both she and Irene rarely visited. Margaret was alone, save the devotion of a niece. Her daughters’ absence was well-noted but little was said, for L.B. was king, and Dad, and dined at their tables along with the stars from his stable at MGM.

Then in the early 1940s, it happened to Irene. David began to stray. The signs had all been there. It was to be expected; he was one of the boys – like Jock Whitney (who was free until he remarried in 1940), like Bill Paley. When he decided he was going to make young Jennifer Jones a star, in the style that his father-in-law made stars, he broke up her marriage to Robert Walker, Irene got the message. She left David and moved to New York, exiling herself, as it turned out, forever from Dad’s kingdom.

Bill and Edie Goetz on the terrace of their house on 300 Delfurn Drive
Meanwhile Edie’s marriage had grown stronger through all this. Billy Goetz, tired of being Number Two son-in-law, left Zanuck, (some said ousted by Zanuck), and with LB’s backing went off on his own company which he called International Pictures. David’s company was Selznick International Pictures similarly grated on David and Irene’s nerves. Goetz produced Tomorrow is Forever with their friend Claudette Colbert, Orson Welles and a little girl named Natasha Gurdin (whom he renamed Natalie Wood – after his friend Sam Wood, the director), and then Song of Bernadette, starring his brother-in-law’s new protégé Jennifer Jones. Now his star was finally on the rise.

In 1946, in partnership with British producer J. Arthur Rank, Goetz bought into Universal Pictures, renaming it Universal-International. To mark the event, Edie staged a dinner party that marked the apotheosis of her career as a Hollywood hostess. Among the 84 guests (including wives and husbands) were Greer Garson, Lana Turner, Joan Crawford, Loretta Young, Robert Young, Douglas Fairbanks, William Powell, Merle Oberon, Dick Powell and June Allyson, Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, Deborah Kerr, Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli, Henry Fonda, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, David Niven, Danny Kaye, Irving Berlin, Joan Bennett and Walter Wanger, Robert Montgomery, Charles Boyer, Sam Goldwyn and Johnny Green who sat and played for hours while Judy Garland sang to the guests. LB Mayer came with Lorena Danker, a thirty-year-old San Fernando Valley widow whom he would soon marry. Not present were Irene (who was in New York where she was about to produce Streetcar Named Desire) and David Selznick who had married Jennifer Jones and was entering the nadir and conclusion of his meteoric career.

Irene solo
Within three years of the Goetzes’ triumph as leader in the community, L.B. Mayer, after twenty-five years of reign over ‘More Stars than There are In the Heavens,’ was ousted from his studio. He did not go quietly into that good night, and the adjustment to banishment and exile was crushing. His enemies chortled and reveled, his loved ones despaired. In his efforts to survive, he had offered his only remaining son-in-law the executive position at MGM but Bill Goetz refused. When Edie asked her husband why he replied, “because the first thing I’d have to do is fire your father.” Father was outraged.

LB turned his rage on his daughter, railing against her husband’s ingratitude and her lavish lifestyle and the same fancy ways he used to boast about. In one midnight phone conversation to her, he demanded she leave her husband to prove her loyalty. She hung up on him.

Repeating a habit he had used on her in childhood when he was angry at her, she stopped speaking to him. The silent treatment was to last ... forever. As he lay dying of leukemia five years later, she refused to go to his sick bed just as he had refused to visit her mother when she called for him on her deathbed (Irene did not visit her mother either, excusing herself because she was in England working with playwright Enid Bagnold on a new project).

Much was made of the rift between father and daughter, but it has never been pointed out that Edie now held the power over her father, and like her father, she well knew it and wielded it as brutally as he could. When Irene called her to tell her that Dad was dying and that she should come, she shot back: “What do you want Irene, a deathbed scene?"

From the Goetz collection
Picasso's Harlequin
Degas' Ballerina
This series of twelve were for La Dame aux Camelias, all watercolors over pencil on paper, signed Marie Laurencin, 1936, were hung in three rows of four in Mrs. Goetz' bedroom
LB Mayer struck back from the grave. When the will was read, disinheriting his beloved Edi-la, she was off in Cap d’Antibes in a rented villa (with chef, maid and valet) entertaining Garbo and visiting Picasso. In another one of her mise en scenes, she would recount years later how when seeing the headlines of her disinheritance, Billy Goetz fell to his knees and promised to make up to her anything the old man deprived her of.

In the late 1950s, Billy Goetz sold out his share of Universal-International to Jules Stein’s MCA and retired to invest his millions in a bank (City National) and a venture capital partnership with his pal Ardie Deutsch. Once or twice a year Irene would come west to stay with her sister and her successful brother-in-law.

Everyone marveled at how the “Snoogies” remained so devoted. Edie, who always claimed that the “one thing (she knew) was how to get a man,” fantasized affairs with Danny Kaye (which annoyed his wife Sylvia more than a little), and before that Eddie Duchin who she said “shacked up with Irene because he loved Billy so ....” Billy, on the other hand, had his dalliances – an affair with Joan Bennett and later with Martha Hyer. If Edie knew, she never let on.

In the 1960s, Frank Sinatra, long seeking their company became a regular and when he married Mia Farrow, Edie, forty-five years older than the bride served as matron of honor. The “A crowd” still came to dine. Their coterie was: Roz Russell and her husband Freddie Brisson, Phyllis and Bennett Cerf, the Pressman, Bill and Babe Paley, Jacqueline and Yul Brynner, George Cukor, Capucine, Felicia and Jack Lemmon. At one of Edie’s dinners during that time, Mae West and Garbo met for the first time. When Elizabeth Taylor first left Richard Burton (the first of several times), she camped out at Edie’s (Burton later sat outside the door refusing to budge until he could join her).

However, Edie’s great success had long turned to hubris. In memory, she came to great reverence for her father who had made it all possible for her. But she had long been prone to intrigues and gossiping about others in ways that were cruel and demonstrated jealousy and envy. The great and celebrated still came to dine but mainly because of the “beloved Billy.”

Then Billy took sick with stomach cancer in the late 1960s. First misdiagnosed as an ulcer, when the truth was learned, it was too late. Edie, who was terrified of disease and death could barely bring herself to stand by her husband’s deathbed. When she cried, he said to her; “better me than you Snoogie.”

When he died in 1969, Sinatra eulogized him before hundreds who were truly grieving. Nunnally Johnson wired from abroad: “Dear Edie: Dear Billy.” Billy Wilder, also in London at the time, recalled sitting in his hotel room weeping over the loss of his dear friend.

After the funeral service, Edie returned home, climbed the grand staircase to her room and confessed to her secretary Sonja Gilbert that it was “all over. Without him, I’m nothing.” She knew; without the power and popularity of her husband, she was lost. She shut herself up in her dressing room and for the first time in her sixty-four years, she cried, sobbing real tears, as much for her future as her past.

Only a few weeks afterwards, Harriet Deutsch whom she loathed and picked on for years (but whom she had to invite because the husbands were best friends), snubbed her at a private dinner. A few weeks later, Mrs. Deutsch gave an enormous dinner, inviting everyone who counted in their world, except Edie.

Irene, c. 1983
Many still, out of respect and affection for Billy, continued to call and console. But the dye was cast and Edie knew it. When Cary Grant turned down her invitation to dine, she suspected Irene’s hand in poisoning the relationship. Then Sinatra, as was his habit, seduced her. Which she loved; she was rapturous. Soon she became his hostess, and in her mind, his future. But then when she realized that it wasn’t in the cards, she turned on him one night after he’d brought her home from a dinner party. Without his asking, she slipped into the conversation that she “could never marry” him, because as she explained “Deane Johnson (her lawyer) told me you were a hoodlum.” Sinatra, she later recalled, turned “purple with rage” walked out the door. He never spoke to her again.

Billy left Edie residing in their Holmby Hills mansion with its art covered walls and the live-in staff of ten. The entrance foyer was stripped of the art to go to auction but Edie insisted it was because she wanted to re-decorate.

By the mid-1970s, the sisters were not speaking. By the early 1980s, the glory had long passed although every Tuesday and Thursday, the women (in evening gowns) and the men came for dinner and a first run picture – Fred and Robyn Astaire, Jimmy and Gloria Stewart, Natalie Wood and RJ Wagner, Mary Lasker and Bill Paley, Sir Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, Yul Brynner, James Clavell, Toshiro Mifune. Even a wide-eyed, fascinated Barbara Streisand came one night.

Vanity still held sway: in 1980, no stranger to plastic surgery, the 75-year-old dowager had her Mayer chin replaced with a stronger one. The following year she had her teeth straightened. She visited Natalie Wood’s shrink everyday. By 1987, she was being consumed with a degenerative respiratory condition, unable to leave the house (except to see the doctor).

Edie, 1984
During the last three years of her life, I visited Edie Goetz almost every Saturday afternoon and taped our conversations, ostensibly to gather information for a piece on her memories of growing up in the film community. She was in failing health with certain respiratory problems but despite that condition, she remained mentaly energetic, read a lot, had a few people in to dinner – sometimes on trays in her very large bedroom, and still screened films (often before their release).

She had been very interested in psychiatry from her mid-thirties, first consulting with a woman named Mae Fromm whom she’d met through Irene. Irene believed that Edie pursued “being analyzed” as yet another form of competing with Irene who had “got there first.” That may have been the motivation but Edie’s interest in “analysis” continued off and on right up to close to the end of her life when she had frequent sessions with a Beverly Hills psychiatrist whom she’d met through Natalie Wood.

We often talked about her father and her husband and the differences in their personalities during those Saturday sessions. She did not confide although, in the manner of people brought up in business of dramatic arts, she was a decent storyteller and a not inept anecdotalist. At eighty she was kind most of the time in her memories about everyone including Irene and her father, although she wasn’t shy about expressing any lingering outrage of injustices or insults that came her way from those two.

My job was to listen and ask questions. I didn’t venture any opinions – which would have been appropriate – until late in the game when we got into the issue of her own family.

At that time, she had been estranged from Barbara Goetz, the youngest of her two daughters, for quite a few years. I can’t remember what caused the breach but naturally it was considered Barbara’s fault and the solution was, as it was with her father: the silent treatment. It also happened that in my “research” she did give me permission to contact and interview Barbara about life at chez Goetz.

Barbara lived in Malibu at the time. I went down to see her one afternoon at her house, a Mediterranean style villa she had refurbished that had been built on the beach by a film comedian of the 20s and 30s. I sat in her kitchen while she talked about her family frankly although not irreverently, and prepared the food for a dinner party she was having that night. She seemed quite at home in the kitchen, unlike her mother, and quite confident (like her mother) of what she was doing. If her family estrangment troubled her, she concealed it well. She seemed to understand the differences between her point of view and her parents’, and being a mother of grown children at that point herself, she was philosophical about it. I could see that she had a lot of her mother’s independence in her, and was also something her mother would have liked: she was a goodlooking woman.

The next time I saw Edie, she was anxious to “hear” about Barbara’s interview, what her house was like and what I thought of her. She was fascinated to hear about her preparing an elaborate dinner that night. And although she didn’t seem to alter her opinion of why they had not spoken for all those years, I could tell that her curiosity was getting the best of her and that if she had sustained any hard feelings toward her daughter, they were not strong.

About a year or maybe less before her death, during one of our Saturday conversations, the business of Barbara came up and I gently pointed out to her that there was a family psychology at work, that her estrangment from her daughter mirrored her relationship with her father, and that it was a common pattern, found in many families. I even dared to suggest that perhaps it could be broken in her lifetime. Edie listened, although she said nothing.

A few weeks later, however, Edie’s secretary, Sonja Gilbert reported to me that Edie had said to her one morning : “what would you think if I called Barbara?” Sonja told her she thought it would be a great idea, and soon was placing the call for her. The phone visit was returned with an invitation to visit Barbara’s house, which Edie did. She was very impressed by her daughter’s environment and her “decorating,” and it might have been one of the first times in her long life that she experienced true motherly pride in her child. In short, Edie repaired the breach, with the cooperation of Barbara. She also re-wrote her will, generally dividing her estate between her two daughters, instead of cutting Barbara out, as her father had cut her out.
Edie and her staff
Edie Goetz died in her four-poster king-size bed at about six in the morning after a bad night, in the master suite of the house on Delfern Drive on June 3, 1988, with the Renoir Billy had given her forty-nine years before, hanging over the fireplace in front of her. The day before had also been particularly bad for her (degenerative lung) condition, although she had had bad days before and always bounced back. Lodge, her butler, reported that he thought she had lost her eyesight in the last two days of her life, although she didn’t admit it. The nurse and her chauffeur Hans had to carry her to the bathroom because she was unable to see to make her way. Lodge said he felt that when “Madame could not see, she thought to herself, this is it.” Without her eyesight, there was not reason to go on, and she gave up the fight. She would have been 83 in two months.

On hearing the news, Irene, called Claudette Colbert at her Fifth Avenue apartment, waking her at six in the morning, with the words: “Well, we can now thank God and rejoice to the heavens! She’s dead!” “Who’s dead?” asked the barely awakened actress and old friend of both sisters. “Why Edie, of course! Who else? Thank God!”

Billy Goetz’ great wealth, however, had been dissipated over the years by his widow’s luxurious living. She had long before gone into her capital, refusing to cut back on anything, even so much as her chauffeur whom she never needed, for fear that Harriet Deutsch and Irene Selznick should think she had no money left. The same with the pictures on the walls of the house: “Over my dead body!” she would yell at her accountant when it was suggested they unload a Vuillard or two to meet expenses. Her annual expenses ran about $300,000 and at the time of her death, she had only about $200,000 in cash left.

It was, of course, over her dead body that most of the collection was sold at Christie’s in New York in November 1988, leaving her children an estate richer by more than double her father and her sister’s estate’s combined. (LB Mayer left approximately $10 million in 1957. When Irene’s pictures were sold after her death, the auction netted less than $6 million).

Click cover to order
Edie had directed in her will that she have no service. One family member said it was because “she knew nobody would show up.” It might have been fear. So she was buried at Hillside, next to her beloved Billy, with no one in attendance except the funeral director and his assistants. It was the first time in his forty years in business, commented the director, that he’d performed a burial where no one person, not even a family member attended. Nobody came. Although in Edie’s mind, she wouldn’t have needed anybody: she had her Snoogie at her side once again.

When Irene died two years after her big sister, there was a memorial service at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre attended by hundreds of Broadway, Hollywood and New York society personalities.

Edie had won some of the battles, and maybe lost the war with her sister, but she’d also been to a marvelous party, a movie really, although maybe not a musical; a long and interesting story, an LB Mayer production.

August 17, 2005, Volume V, Number 142
Photographs courtesy of Lion of Hollywood; The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer


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